Harvard Chemist's Trial a Test of DOJ's China Prosecutions

He is charged with hiding his ties to a Chinese-run recruitment program.

Harvard professor Charles Lieber, left, leaves federal court with his lawyer Marc Mukasey, Boston, Dec. 14, 2021.
Harvard professor Charles Lieber, left, leaves federal court with his lawyer Marc Mukasey, Boston, Dec. 14, 2021.
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

BOSTON (AP) — The trial of a Harvard University professor charged with hiding his ties to a Chinese-run recruitment program is the latest bellwether in the U.S. Justice Department's controversial effort to crackdown on economic espionage by China.

Opening statements in the trial of Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, begin Wednesday after jury selection was completed Tuesday in Boston federal court.

Lieber's trial is among the highest profile cases to come from the U.S. Department of Justice’s so-called “China Initiative,” which was launched in 2018 under former President Donald Trump but has faced criticism that it harms academic research and amounts to racial profiling of Chinese researchers.

Federal prosecutors and Lieber's defense team didn't comment Tuesday, but in legal filings ahead of trial, prosecutors said they’ll show Lieber deliberately made false statements about his participation in a Chinese university program to protect his reputation and career.

Lieber’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, argued in his trial brief that prosecutors will be unable to prove that he acted "knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement.” He also stressed Lieber, who remains on paid leave from Harvard, isn't charged with illegally transferring any technology or proprietary information to China.

“The government has this wrong,” Mukasey said last year. "When justice is done, Charlie’s good name will be restored.”

Lieber was arrested last January on allegations that he hid his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program designed to recruit people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China.

Lieber, prosecutors said, was paid $50,000 a month by the Wuhan University of Technology in China, given up to $158,000 in living expenses and awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to establish a research lab at the Chinese university.

In exchange, prosecutors say, Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.

He's pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include two counts of making false statements to authorities and four tax offenses for failing to report income from the Wuhan university.

At the time, Lieber was one of the biggest names — and one of the few not of Chinese origin — swept up in the wide-ranging China Initiative, which was ostensibly launched to prosecute trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage.

The effort also focuses on threats to national infrastructure and “efforts to influence the American public and policymakers without proper transparency,” according to the Justice Department’s website.

The department hasn’t provided a comprehensive list of all the cases prosecuted under the initiative and their outcomes, but said Tuesday that the tally includes at least nine economic espionage prosecutions, seven theft of trade secrets cases and 12 matters involving fraud on universities or other grant making institutions.

Hundreds of faculty members at Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Princeton, Temple and other prominent colleges, meanwhile, have signed onto letters to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on him to end the initiative.

The academics say the effort is compromises the nation’s competitiveness in research and technology and has had a chilling effect on recruiting foreign scholars. The letters also complain the investigations have disproportionally targeted researchers of Chinese origin.

Even Andrew Lelling, a former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts who was an early leader on the nationwide effort and whose office brought charges against Lieber, believes the initiative needs reform.

“The Initiative has drifted and, in some significant ways, lost its focus,” he wrote in part on LinkedIn last week. “DOJ should revamp, and shut down, parts of the program, to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.”

Lelling, who is now in private practice, declined to comment directly on the Lieber case Tuesday, but argued that cases like it were important in bringing attention to the growing threat of economic espionage by the Chinese government.

“There was widespread concern that the Chinese government was using research collaborations to siphon off U.S. technology, so researchers failing to disclose their China connections to U.S. grant-makers was concerning," he said. “If the U.S. government doesn’t know the extent of U.S. research collaboration with China, it can’t properly develop policy in that area.”

At the same time, Lelling argued that prosecutors should play out the remaining cases to their conclusion and focus on only the most serious cases against academics going forward.

“Three years later, the academic community is fully aware of the issue," he said. "Schools have tightened their disclosure requirements in this area and researchers are very worried about government enforcement. In short, deterrence has been achieved.”

Wyn Hornbuckle, a DOJ spokesperson, said Tuesday that the department is reviewing its approach to countering threats posed by the Chinese government and will provide additional information in the coming weeks.

Garland told lawmakers during an October hearing on the initiative that China remains a “serious threat” to American intellectual property in terms of espionage, cyber incursions and ransomware.

But he also stressed that "cases will not be pursued based on discrimination, but only on facts justifying them.”

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